Family, duty and war: Three Utahns and their civilian fight in Gaza
Oct 23, 2023, 7:35 PM | Updated: Oct 24, 2023, 9:13 am
(AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
SALT LAKE CITY — “Hello?”
Abood Okal’s alert yet exhausted voice is quiet as it emerges through the static of the telephone.
“I am doing ok.”
He explains that only a couple of hours before he made this phone call, a house less than a block away from him was decimated by an air strike.
“It was so loud to the point the wall cracked — if you can imagine the magnitude.”
Okal and his young family are American citizens trapped in the Gaza Strip. They fled from his parent’s home in Northern Gaza and are sheltering in a small house with 40 other Palestinians, six miles from the Rafah checkpoint.
“My 1-year-old son was taking a much-needed nap, he’s sleep deprived.”
Okal said his wife, Wafa, rushed to their son, Yousef, across the crowded room to shield him from the shattering glass.
“That’s kind of an unknown and unfortunate consequence of an airstrike… the glass shatters and flies around.”
Okal and his family now live in Boston. But only a couple of years ago he graduated with a Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Science from the University of Utah.
His voice is laced with fear and acceptance. The latter is a jarring reality check.
“Whole blocks are just blown out,” Okal said. “The magnitude of the destruction is just unbelievable. Whenever I go out for food, my wife cries because she thinks I’m never coming back”
Life in Boston
Less than three weeks ago, Okal and Wafa were drinking tea in their leafy backyard, watching Yousef play on his swing set with their dog.
“Our son is pretty active,” he said. “He’s used to going out and playing for a couple of hours every morning in the backyard.”
Okal says the idyllic lifestyle he and his wife have built in Boston together with their son wasn’t always on the cards for them.
“At one point we thought we would never have kids,” he said. “We tried for years. After multiple failed attempts we were gifted Youseff who turns two this year.”
“Every parent loves their kids, but maybe we love him a little extra because we wanted him so bad,” Okal said. “We just wanted to introduce him to our families and spend some time between Israel, West Bank and Gaza and then go back to our normal life in Boston.
“Entire families wiped out, parents losing children which is not how things are supposed to be,” he said. “The thought of it is extremely terrifying. We’re afraid for our kid’s life.”
The call of duty
Over 7,000 miles east of Okal and his family, on the steps of the Utah State Capitol, Tzachi Korzvart is standing in the rain. An Israeli flag is draped over his shoulders, the water drops on his yarmulke look like stars in the fading day light.
It’s Oct. 11, and the Jewish community in Utah is reeling from the deadly attack from Hamas that left over 1,100 people dead, including at least 29 Americans.
He’s watching Gov. Spencer Cox address a crowd of at least 300 Utahns who have braved the cold to show solidarity for the Jewish community around the world.
“Evil exists. Hamas is evil. We must say it and we must defeat it,” Cox said to the crowd. He too is wearing a yarmulke.
Korzvart’s eyes are dark and firm.
He was a combat medic and First Sergeant in the Israeli Defense Force and has lived in Salt Lake City for a little under two years. He works in disability services and according to social media, specifically with deaf people.
He saw battle during his service.
“It’s part of being Israeli… what happened the last 10 years were small conflicts,” Korzvart said. “This is war.”
“The magnitude is different… nobody wants to see war. We didn’t. Nobody asked for this,” Korzvart said. “Hamas has done something that is a crime against humanity. It’s a fight between good and evil, light and darkness.”
Korzvart comes from a decent-sized family. He has two younger brothers currently serving in the IDF, on the front lines.
“My family is strong, my parents are strong,” he said. “They’re currently safe, I keep saying ‘currently’ because it’s a war.”
“My dad, he’s retired forensic police [officer] he has now volunteered to be a part of the forensics team in Israel to support them identifying the bodies,” he said.
Korzvart is in the reserve unit and waiting to be called home to Israel to help in the war effort.
He says he hasn’t returned yet because the planes are crowded with reservists who are needed more than he is right now. He doesn’t want to deny them a seat.
“The first couple of days were total shock of understanding what’s going on,” Korzvart said. “A feeling I cannot describe.”
The rain is falling a little heavier now, there’s a small group of wedding photographers not far taking photos of models posing on the capitol balcony.
“Mourning, crying, praying — my partner has not stopped crying until now,” Korzvart said. “There is no such thing as being ready to go to war, I’m talking emotionally and psychologically. Currently, I’m angry. I’m awake, and I’m determined. Whatever is needed from me I’m there.”
“I’m Israeli,” he said. “It’s my home. I love the United States… but for the Jewish people there’s only one country. One home.”
A mother, sister and daughter from Gaza
Ten days on from the rally for Israel, the clouds have cleared over Capitol Hill.
Enas is standing with her family at the back of a large crowd of at least 300 people holding Palestinian flags and chanting for a cease-fire.
“It was crazy because I knew it was going to flip the situation really bad,” she said re-living the morning of Oct. 7 when she heard about the Hamas attack.
“This has never happened before where a lot of numbers [deaths] are on the Israeli side,” she said.
Enas is Palestinian and grew up in Gaza, living there for 20 years before moving to Utah in 2014.
She is two weeks away from giving birth to a baby boy. In her spare time, she does charity work in Salt Lake City collecting donated clothing for those in need.
“I have my parents… my sisters, they have three kids each younger than 10, then I have a brother who’s the youngest,” Enas explained whilst her own son, Zain, tugged at her cardigan to hand her a rock he found.
“The bombings are not like the usual that we are used to, right?” she asked, as though anyone would understand what she meant.
“It would usually happen for like a few days or a week right max and then it’s done, but this time it was everything and everywhere.”
Family in Gaza
After the first retaliation to the Hamas attack, Enas lost contact with her family.
“I bought them an E-Sim; my mum has a newer iPhone and that’s the only way [I can talk to her],” she said. “Now I can call her but she’s like; ‘don’t call me at night’, because she’s just so scared at nighttime- that’s when they start bombing.”
Enas is just one woman who grew up in Gaza, so her experience and mentality might be unique, but according to her, she was never taught to hate Israel.
“I was never raised to hate, but I was raised to get my country back. That was something everyone wants in Gaza,” she explained. “Every single child wants Palestine back.”
According to Enas, growing up in Gaza meant constant fear.
“Every day, I didn’t wake up in peace or have that peaceful feeling,” she reflected. “That’s one of the biggest things — what was going to happen tomorrow, where there is no tomorrow for me as a kid?”
In 2008, she had her first real brush with war.
“[My older brother] was killed when he was on a beach with his friends by an airstrike,” Enas said. “He was just a high schooler, and we were so excited for his graduation, he was two months away from his graduation. He couldn’t even see his own grades that he passed, he had As in everything.”
Aid to Gaza
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, before the war began on Oct. 7, 2023, 256 people had been killed this year in conflicts between Israel and Palestine. Twenty-nine of them were Israeli, 227 were Palestinian.
Since 2008, 6,715 people have been killed in conflicts between Israel and Palestine. Of those, 308 have been Israeli. These numbers are from before this war started in early October.
Currently, the total death toll across both nations is unconfirmed but estimated to already be in the thousands on both sides.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden returned to the White House from Israel. In an address to the nation, he said he pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow aid from Egypt into Gaza for Palestinian Civilians.
“I was very blunt about the need to support getting humanitarian aid to Gaza, get it to Gaza and do it quickly,” Biden said when asked about what he told Israeli officials.
According to the President, aid should have been entering Gaza through the Rafah crossing gate as soon as Friday just gone.
“I got no pushback,” said Biden. “Virtually none.”
Seventeen trucks with aid supplies entered Gaza early on Sunday morning, according to a U.N. Relief and Works Agency spokesperson.
Okal and his family are at the Rafah checkpoint on the Gaza side hoping to cross. According to text messages, he has not received any water or aid from the trucks that Israeli and Egyptian leaders agreed to let through.
Okal, Korzvart and Enas are three Utahns who exist on different sides of this war.
Okal just wants to get his family home alive. Korzvart just wants to defend his home alongside his family. Enas just wants to hug her brother one more time.
All three have a minor heart attack every time their phone rings.